David, revolutionary artist

David, revolutionary artist

  • The Lictors bring back the bodies of his sons to Brutus.

    DAVID Jacques Louis (1748 - 1825)

  • The Triumph of the French People.

    DAVID Jacques Louis (1748 - 1825)

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Title: The Lictors bring back the bodies of his sons to Brutus.

Author : DAVID Jacques Louis (1748 - 1825)

Creation date : 1789

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 323 - Width 422

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas

Storage place: Louvre Museum (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Louvre Museum) / Gérard Blot / Christian Jean website

Picture reference: 88-001960-02 / INV3693

The Lictors bring back the bodies of his sons to Brutus.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Louvre Museum) / Gérard Blot / Christian Jean

To close

Title: The Triumph of the French People.

Author : DAVID Jacques Louis (1748 - 1825)

Creation date : 1795

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 21.1 - Width 44

Technique and other indications: Black ink, gray wash, graphite, pen

Storage place: Louvre Museum (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Louvre Museum) / Michèle Bellot website

Picture reference: 90-003217 / RF71

The Triumph of the French People.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Louvre Museum) / Michèle Bellot

Publication date: January 2012

Historical context

From liberal artist to deputy of the Convention

The 1789 Salon de peinture du Louvre presents a new series of works commissioned since 1775 for the crown from official artists by Angiviller (1730-1810), the director general of Buildings, Arts, Gardens and Manufactures. The subjects exalt civic and moral values ​​through ancient heroes or national glories considered as examples of virtue (exemplum virtutis).

The painter Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) succeeded in extracting new subjects from ancient history that even allowed him to develop a pictorial language in line with the moral sense of the subject represented, and this, from the realization of the first of his orders, the Oath of the Horatii (Louvre), exhibited at the Salon of 1785.

Although his second painting for the king dates from the following year, it was not presented to the public until September 1789, when the Salon was already open. David freely chooses an original subject taken from the life of one of the founders of the Roman Republic who had driven the reigning family of the Tarquins from Rome: the Lictors Bringing the Bodies of His Sons to Brutus. In a France that has become revolutionary, does the painter, who rubs shoulders with a liberal aristocratic milieu, aspire to give his work the value of a political manifesto?

In any case, five years later, under the Terror, David draws a Triumph of the French people to undoubtedly serve as a stage curtain for a political performance planned at the Paris Opera. He then fully embraced the revolutionary movement and even became a member of the Convention.

Image Analysis

Freedom or death

On June 14, 1789, David wrote to his pupil Jean-Baptiste Wicar (1762-1834): “I am making a painting of my pure invention. It was Brutus, man and father, who deprived himself of his children and who, retired to his homes, was brought back to him with his two sons to be buried. He is distracted from his grief, at the foot of the statue of Rome, by the cries of his wife, the fear and the fainting of the older girl. ".

His sons having conspired against the young Republic, Lucius Junius Brutus had had to order their execution: his love and his duties towards his country thus prevailed over those towards his family.
As in the Oath of the Horatii, two worlds collide on the web. The left side is occupied by men; it is dominated by an inert and overwhelmed Brutus, his feet twisted by interior pain, seated and leaning against the plinth of the statue of Rome, the whole placed in an original dramatizing semi-darkness. In the other part, the colorful and illuminating part of the world of women, there is pain, even incomprehension in the face of male brutality. A tearful maid even hides her entire body under a drape.

The unfinished drawing (but squared to be postponed) is also composed lengthwise in the manner of an antique frieze, but the procession which forms the Triumph of the French people moves from left to right. La Victoire guides an ancient chariot, pulled by four bulls, on which sits a seated Hercules personalizing the French people, protecting Equality and Liberty, with Commerce, Abundance, Sciences and the Arts at their feet. The chariot crowded with the attributes of the Ancien Régime, while in front of them two commoners put down tyrants who tried to flee. At the back, David draws those he considers the heroes of liberty, brandishing palms, symbol of their "martyrs": Cornélie, who accompanies his sons, the Gracchi (murdered for their attempts at plebeian reforms), Brutus , Guillaume Tell (who carries his son on his shoulders), then bring up the rear Marat and Le Pelletier, two deputies of the Convention assassinated in 1793.


David, painter of the "martyrs" of freedom

Following the revolutionary events of spring and summer 1789, David could not present his portrait of the Lavoisier couple at the Salon (New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art), because the scientist and farmer general Antoine Lavoisier was then involved in a riot. . David also gives up the idea of ​​painting in his Brutus the heads of the hero's sons which were placed at the end of peaks carried by the procession bringing back the bodies. The authorities remained nonetheless hampered by the exhibition of this work because (according to a text by David of 1793) of "the analogy between the conduct of Brutus and that which Louis XVI should have taken towards of his brother [the Comte d'Artois, future Charles X] and of his other relatives who conspired against the freedom of their country. "

It is true that Brutus (who can moreover be easily associated with his namesake the son and assassin of Caesar) is then considered above all not as a crushed father, but as a Republican who fights victoriously against the royal tyranny until order the death of his conspiratorial sons.

The work can only be quickly recovered for political ends. A revolutionary newspaper of 1790 (Bloody patriotic letter from the real Father Duchêne) recalls that David (who then begins to paint the Oath of the Tennis Court of 1789) is the author "of this Brutus so dark, so determined, this proud executioner of Despotism, this true model of free men… ”. And the work is even exhibited again at the Salon of 1791.

The painter is then fully engaged in the revolutionary movement. In 1793, when he drew this Triumph of Liberty, he is a deputy for Paris at the Convention and it is in this capacity that he votes for the death of the king. Under the Terror that followed, he was for a time president of the Jacobin club, secretary of the Convention, member of the General Security Committee, and even very briefly president of the Convention. He painted for this assembly Marat and Le Pelletier, two of his assassinated deputies (Brussels, Royal Museums of Fine Arts and non-localized work), and directed many revolutionary festivals including the one in honor of the Supreme Being, festivals where processions of floats travel through Paris from station to station to celebrate revolutionary ideals and heroes.
According to his contemporary Alexandre Lenoir, who had a second, more complete version of this Triumph (Paris, Musée Carnavalet), this "allegory relating to the revolutionary system of 1793 [is] the type of what David imagined for the ordinance of national holidays. On the latter, Marat and Le Pelletier display their wounds and are accompanied by other revolutionary "martyrs", killed or having committed suicide under the Terror, and brandishing, as attributes, the instruments of their dead. As for the man down in the foreground, he wears a royal cloak. The Triumph of Liberty is therefore a work that reflects the political debates of the Terror, a time when the Jacobin Pagès wrote in his poem Republican France "That Hercules from the tyrants had delivered the World", or that an orator declared to the Convention that the "regeneration of a great people and of having annihilated all its tyrants" (Filassier, orateur, germinal year II / April 1794 ).

But the fall of Robespierre on 9 Thermidor Year II (July 26, 1794), must have made the order null and void. The day before, David had replied to the Incorruptible who said, "If we have to succumb, well! my friends, you will see me drink hemlock calmly ":" I will drink it with you ". But absent from the Convention the following day, he was only temporarily imprisoned under the Thermidorian reaction.

  • neoclassicism
  • allegory
  • engaged art
  • Convention
  • propaganda
  • French Revolution
  • antiquity
  • Art fair
  • speaker
  • Lavoisier (Antoine)


SCHNAPPER Antoine, Jacques-Louis David: 1748-1825, exhibition catalog, Paris, Louvre Museum, Department of Paintings, Versailles, Musée national du château, October 26, 1989 - February 12, 1990, Paris, Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1989

To cite this article

Guillaume NICOUD, "David, revolutionary artist"

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